Students don’t graduate because…

… because they’ve lost hope.

They’ve lost hope that:

  • they can fulfill degree requirements (some subjects are tough!)
  • they can actually graduate
  • (more importantly) they can graduate in a shorter time so they pay less tuition fees
  • they can get a good job with that degree

And so they give up. They’ve lost hope. They don’t believe anymore.

A degree can still be useful. But the current educational and economic outlook doesn’t exactly inspire a lot of confidence in the immediate use of a degree.

Educational institutes mostly teach students towards knowledge that’s known. I mean, your professor won’t set a question that he can’t answer, right? The world we now live in rewards those who solve the unknown, possibly even seeking questions that weren’t ever asked.

Teachers need to start teaching students to face the unknowable. They need to instill hope in the next generation.

Belief is everything

You might be surprised that I’ve learnt many life lessons from books. Specifically, fantasy fiction. Today, I’m going to tell you one of them.

Warning: There will be spoilers, even though I’ve summarised a fair chunk of the book. The following comes from the book Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks. If you don’t want spoilers, you should stop reading… now.

Gifted wrongly

I will be summarising extensively. There was this great druid. There was also this great evil (isn’t there always…). With some thought, the druid figured out how to defeat the great evil, and he forged a sword with which to do battle.

The druid decided to give the sword to another. I can’t remember why, whether out of sacrifice (didn’t want to get all the credit), or that he couldn’t fight anymore (old age). I’m sure a Shannara fan will happily correct me in the comments…

But the druid made a fatal mistake. He gifted the magic sword to the king of the elven people.

The king himself wasn’t the mistake. The position of kingship was.

The king went to do battle with the great evil and won. But a quiet cloak of belief had already settled onto the elven people. That the magic sword will only work for the king.

As a consequence of that belief, the elven people also believed that only the heirs of the king could successfully wield the great magic sword. This was wrong. The magic sword would work for any elf with the right purpose of heart. The druid had not forged any special condition into the sword.

But with mass belief, the unintended condition wrapped itself together with the magic. And eventually, it became true. Only heirs from the line of the original king could wield the magic sword.

Belief is everything

And that was one of my first life lessons. Belief is everything. Beliefs are powerful.

If you don’t believe that something will work, then it probably won’t.

If you believe you can fashion a database to support the technical aspects of your program, then yes, you probably will come up with a design to suit your needs.

Disbelief closes off possibilities.

A corollary of that is about mass belief. If many people believe in something, then that something has a lot of power. Religion, superstitions, doomsday announcements, electromagnetic waves. I’m not talking about proofs and so on, particularly with science. I’m talking purely about beliefs. Say some scientific experiment can be replicated with the same results. That convinces people of the validity of the theory behind the experiment, and thus belief in that theory. It’s still belief.

This gave me confidence and understanding of certain human endeavors. Why do some people succeed at businesses? Many people believe that starting your own business is risky. And they’d be right. And those people who succeed? Those people believe they can succeed in making their business work, overriding the disbelief from the people around them.

Belief is everything.

It’s how I’ve upheld my own beliefs in the face of every belief thrown at me from everyone around me. My family. My friends. Even strangers.

Of course, you don’t have to listen to me. “Everything” is an absolute term. But that means you do believe in something, just not my version.

Just in case you’re interested in what the magic sword can do, it does one thing only. It reveals the truth. That great evil grew powerful because of the fear from the people. Yes, the belief that the great evil is indeed very powerful and can do great harm, made the evil even more powerful. The magic sword unveiled the truth, that the great evil was simply a malevolent shadow of a man.

Politicians, scammers and liars of all sorts would fear the Sword of Shannara indeed.

Launching SpreadsheetLight

I am excited to tell you that my spreadsheet software library is available!


For the initial launch version (I decided to go for version 1. Why do people launch with versions 0.8? I don’t know…), you get comprehensive support for styles, rich text formatting, 47 named cell styles, themes (either one of the 20 built-in themes or create-your-own). Well, like I said, comprehensive styling support.

There’s also the (hum-drum) support for merging cells and freezing panes. I actually explored how to split panes. I certainly wrote about it in my Open XML guide, but it turns out that there’s a tiny rectangle at the top-left corner that Microsoft Excel didn’t tell me about. The size of that tiny rectangle is dependent on the font you use, and even the screen resolution of your computer screen.

While I could add a function that allows you to just input the size in EMUs (English Metric Units), I decided that if I can’t do it well, I don’t want to do it. At least for the initial launch.

Row heights and column widths were also big time drains. It turns out that they’re also dependent on the font and screen resolution of your computer screen. I was trying to calculate the standard row heights and column widths for the fonts in the built-in themes, and I thought I had them. I wrote a program using SpreadsheetLight to generate spreadsheets with different minor fonts, and I wrote a program to read in those spreadsheets and get the “standard” row height and column width. I spent 3 hours collecting data.

Then on a whim, I switched my computer screen’s resolution from 120 DPI to 96 DPI (my eyesight’s not that good ok? I need bigger text…), and whoa! All that data doesn’t apply anymore… All in all, I think I spent 6 or 7 days trying to figure out a general calculation formula. I failed. I don’t know how Excel does it.

I also surprised myself by including extensive support for pictures. I thought you just insert a picture into the worksheet and that’s it! It turns out there’s a ton of post-insertion manipulations you can do. For example, if your picture has transparent areas, you could set a background fill, and that background colour will be visible through the picture. Also, you can rotate the picture in 3D.

SpreadsheetLight is licensed under the MIT license. I decided to use one of the available software licenses instead of making up one of my own. As far as I can tell, the MIT license allows the recipient of the software to use the software in personal or commercial products. It’s also categorised as free software, as in freedom of use, not free as in cost. I don’t want to deal with per-client, or per-server, or per-developer or per-what-not licensing restrictions.

Even if you’re not interested in spreadsheet software, have a look at SpreadsheetLight. Tell some other programmer about it. Tell your manager about it. It took me slightly over 2 months of intense coding, and I want someone in the world out there to have an easier life because of SpreadsheetLight. Thanks!

Oh, and the image art is designed by Charlie Pabst from Charfish Design. While I have a fair competence in image work, I decided to get a professional designer to help me. It’s a business and professional product. I’m not going to risk the product’s success so I could stoke my ego…

Named cell styles are still explicitly declared

Styling cells in Microsoft Excel has its difficulties (as I’ve written before). The biggest one is keeping track of all the indices. In Open XML SDK, you have the ability to have a named cell style.

At first glance, you might think that’s awesome. You just use a named cell style, and all the related styles are applied. It’s like there’s a red car that uses hybrid fuels. “Yes, I would like to have a red car that uses hybrid fuels.” Not quite.

You see, the named cell style is dependent on the implementing spreadsheet software. For example, Microsoft Excel has the “Normal”, “Bad”, “Good” and “Neutral” named cell styles. But Google Spreadsheets and Calc do not have to have those named cell styles, or even style it the same as Microsoft Excel. This is where Open XML SDK isn’t quite “open”… After much research and work, I discovered the SDK is basically Open-XML-ising Microsoft Excel (and Word and PowerPoint). I’m neutral on the stands of open source and “forcing standards”. I just use whatever there is, and make something within the limitations.

Because of the dependency, the underlying individual styles need to be declared explicitly. Actually more so because of the dependency.

So for my spreadsheet software library SpreadsheetLight, I used Excel as the guideline.

In researching Excel named cell styles, I had to look at the underlying XML files (because Open XML spreadsheets are made of XML files). While the Open XML SDK comes with a document explorer (the Productivity Tool), I needed to make notes and also that I felt the need to see the XML file itself, rather than using the explorer tool.

This gave me a problem because while XML files are supposed to be human-readable, it doesn’t make it easy to read. The “natural” XML file has no indents. Oh my Godiva chocolate, it’s so hard to read… Then I remembered I had an XML tool, XML Studio. I fired that up and a few clicks later, the XML file had nice indents and I could find out where the individual style tags were. XML Studio was amazing to use.

Disclaimer: I was given a free developer license of XML Studio by Liquid Technologies. But the software is really useful if you work with XML files a lot.

After doing my notes for a while, I discovered even that’s not enough. There were too many individual styles! I needed the indices for those styles, because only the index was referenced in the final style (CellFormat classes). I didn’t really feel up to annotating the indices… until I remembered my partially completed Open XML spreadsheet decompiler tool. When I created that tool, one of my aims was to put in comments on the index of the individual styles.

Note to Liquid Technologies: You might want to consider putting in XML comments on the index of an XML child tag with respect to its parent. But I don’t know if that’s useful to programming spheres other than Open XML…

Anyway, my hard work paid off, and SpreadsheetLight allows you to apply named cell styles. Here’s how the spreadsheet looks like:
Applying named cell styles

Note that some of the named cell styles use accent colours. The accent colours are part of the spreadsheet’s theme. So in offering named cell styles as a feature, I also had to allow you to create your own theme. And here’s the code using SpreadsheetLight:

System.Drawing.Color[] clrs = new System.Drawing.Color[12];
clrs[0] = System.Drawing.Color.White;
clrs[1] = System.Drawing.Color.Black;
clrs[2] = System.Drawing.Color.WhiteSmoke;
clrs[3] = System.Drawing.Color.DarkSlateGray;
clrs[4] = System.Drawing.Color.DarkRed;
clrs[5] = System.Drawing.Color.OrangeRed;
clrs[6] = System.Drawing.Color.DarkGoldenrod;
clrs[7] = System.Drawing.Color.DarkOliveGreen;
clrs[8] = System.Drawing.Color.Navy;
clrs[9] = System.Drawing.Color.Indigo;
clrs[10] = System.Drawing.Color.SkyBlue;
clrs[11] = System.Drawing.Color.MediumPurple;

SLDocument sl = new SLDocument("ColourWheel", "Castellar", "Harrington", clrs);

sl.SetRowHeight(6, 24);
sl.SetColumnWidth(1, 1);
sl.SetColumnWidth(2, 13);
sl.SetColumnWidth(3, 13);
sl.SetColumnWidth(4, 13);
sl.SetColumnWidth(5, 13);
sl.SetColumnWidth(6, 13);
sl.SetColumnWidth(7, 13);

sl.SetCellValue(2, 2, "Normal");
sl.ApplyNamedCellStyle(2, 2, SLNamedCellStyleValues.Normal);
sl.SetCellValue(2, 3, "Bad");
sl.ApplyNamedCellStyle(2, 3, SLNamedCellStyleValues.Bad);
sl.SetCellValue(2, 4, "Good");
sl.ApplyNamedCellStyle(2, 4, SLNamedCellStyleValues.Good);
sl.SetCellValue(2, 5, "Neutral");
sl.ApplyNamedCellStyle(2, 5, SLNamedCellStyleValues.Neutral);

sl.SetCellValue(3, 2, "Calculation");
sl.ApplyNamedCellStyle(3, 2, SLNamedCellStyleValues.Calculation);
sl.SetCellValue(3, 3, "Check Cell");
sl.ApplyNamedCellStyle(3, 3, SLNamedCellStyleValues.CheckCell);
sl.SetCellValue(3, 4, "Explanatory Text");
sl.ApplyNamedCellStyle(3, 4, SLNamedCellStyleValues.ExplanatoryText);
sl.SetCellValue(3, 5, "Input");
sl.ApplyNamedCellStyle(3, 5, SLNamedCellStyleValues.Input);

sl.SetCellValue(4, 2, "Linked Cell");
sl.ApplyNamedCellStyle(4, 2, SLNamedCellStyleValues.LinkedCell);
sl.SetCellValue(4, 3, "Note");
sl.ApplyNamedCellStyle(4, 3, SLNamedCellStyleValues.Note);
sl.SetCellValue(4, 4, "Output");
sl.ApplyNamedCellStyle(4, 4, SLNamedCellStyleValues.Output);
sl.SetCellValue(4, 5, "Warning Text");
sl.ApplyNamedCellStyle(4, 5, SLNamedCellStyleValues.WarningText);

sl.SetCellValue(6, 2, "Heading 1");
sl.ApplyNamedCellStyle(6, 2, SLNamedCellStyleValues.Heading1);
sl.SetCellValue(6, 3, "Heading 2");
sl.ApplyNamedCellStyle(6, 3, SLNamedCellStyleValues.Heading2);
sl.SetCellValue(6, 4, "Heading 3");
sl.ApplyNamedCellStyle(6, 4, SLNamedCellStyleValues.Heading3);
sl.SetCellValue(6, 5, "Heading 4");
sl.ApplyNamedCellStyle(6, 5, SLNamedCellStyleValues.Heading4);
sl.SetCellValue(6, 6, "Title");
sl.ApplyNamedCellStyle(6, 6, SLNamedCellStyleValues.Title);
sl.SetCellValue(6, 7, "Total");
sl.ApplyNamedCellStyle(6, 7, SLNamedCellStyleValues.Total);

sl.SetCellValue(8, 2, "Accent1");
sl.ApplyNamedCellStyle(8, 2, SLNamedCellStyleValues.Accent1);
sl.SetCellValue(8, 3, "Accent2");
sl.ApplyNamedCellStyle(8, 3, SLNamedCellStyleValues.Accent2);
sl.SetCellValue(8, 4, "Accent3");
sl.ApplyNamedCellStyle(8, 4, SLNamedCellStyleValues.Accent3);
sl.SetCellValue(8, 5, "Accent4");
sl.ApplyNamedCellStyle(8, 5, SLNamedCellStyleValues.Accent4);
sl.SetCellValue(8, 6, "Accent5");
sl.ApplyNamedCellStyle(8, 6, SLNamedCellStyleValues.Accent5);
sl.SetCellValue(8, 7, "Accent6");
sl.ApplyNamedCellStyle(8, 7, SLNamedCellStyleValues.Accent6);

sl.SetCellValue(9, 2, "Accent1Perc60");
sl.ApplyNamedCellStyle(9, 2, SLNamedCellStyleValues.Accent1Percentage60);
sl.SetCellValue(9, 3, "Accent2Perc60");
sl.ApplyNamedCellStyle(9, 3, SLNamedCellStyleValues.Accent2Percentage60);
sl.SetCellValue(9, 4, "Accent3Perc60");
sl.ApplyNamedCellStyle(9, 4, SLNamedCellStyleValues.Accent3Percentage60);
sl.SetCellValue(9, 5, "Accent4Perc60");
sl.ApplyNamedCellStyle(9, 5, SLNamedCellStyleValues.Accent4Percentage60);
sl.SetCellValue(9, 6, "Accent5Perc60");
sl.ApplyNamedCellStyle(9, 6, SLNamedCellStyleValues.Accent5Percentage60);
sl.SetCellValue(9, 7, "Accent6Perc60");
sl.ApplyNamedCellStyle(9, 7, SLNamedCellStyleValues.Accent6Percentage60);

sl.SetCellValue(10, 2, "Accent1Perc40");
sl.ApplyNamedCellStyle(10, 2, SLNamedCellStyleValues.Accent1Percentage40);
sl.SetCellValue(10, 3, "Accent2Perc40");
sl.ApplyNamedCellStyle(10, 3, SLNamedCellStyleValues.Accent2Percentage40);
sl.SetCellValue(10, 4, "Accent3Perc40");
sl.ApplyNamedCellStyle(10, 4, SLNamedCellStyleValues.Accent3Percentage40);
sl.SetCellValue(10, 5, "Accent4Perc40");
sl.ApplyNamedCellStyle(10, 5, SLNamedCellStyleValues.Accent4Percentage40);
sl.SetCellValue(10, 6, "Accent5Perc40");
sl.ApplyNamedCellStyle(10, 6, SLNamedCellStyleValues.Accent5Percentage40);
sl.SetCellValue(10, 7, "Accent6Perc40");
sl.ApplyNamedCellStyle(10, 7, SLNamedCellStyleValues.Accent6Percentage40);

sl.SetCellValue(11, 2, "Accent1Perc20");
sl.ApplyNamedCellStyle(11, 2, SLNamedCellStyleValues.Accent1Percentage20);
sl.SetCellValue(11, 3, "Accent2Perc20");
sl.ApplyNamedCellStyle(11, 3, SLNamedCellStyleValues.Accent2Percentage20);
sl.SetCellValue(11, 4, "Accent3Perc20");
sl.ApplyNamedCellStyle(11, 4, SLNamedCellStyleValues.Accent3Percentage20);
sl.SetCellValue(11, 5, "Accent4Perc20");
sl.ApplyNamedCellStyle(11, 5, SLNamedCellStyleValues.Accent4Percentage20);
sl.SetCellValue(11, 6, "Accent5Perc20");
sl.ApplyNamedCellStyle(11, 6, SLNamedCellStyleValues.Accent5Percentage20);
sl.SetCellValue(11, 7, "Accent6Perc20");
sl.ApplyNamedCellStyle(11, 7, SLNamedCellStyleValues.Accent6Percentage20);

sl.SetCellValue(13, 2, 12345678);
sl.ApplyNamedCellStyle(13, 2, SLNamedCellStyleValues.Comma);
sl.SetCellValue(13, 4, 12345678);
sl.ApplyNamedCellStyle(13, 4, SLNamedCellStyleValues.Comma0);
sl.SetCellValue(14, 2, 12345678);
sl.ApplyNamedCellStyle(14, 2, SLNamedCellStyleValues.Currency);
sl.SetCellValue(14, 4, 12345678);
sl.ApplyNamedCellStyle(14, 4, SLNamedCellStyleValues.Currency0);
sl.SetCellValue(15, 2, 123);
sl.ApplyNamedCellStyle(156, 2, SLNamedCellStyleValues.Percentage);


I set the column widths of the 2nd to 7th column, and the row height of the 6th row so it’s easier to see.

The main body text (the minor font) is in Harrington, and the title font (major font) is Castellar. You will note that even though the major font is supposedly used for heading and title texts, only the named cell style Title uses the major font. The headings 1 through 4 use the minor font.